Remedy Entertainment/Microsoft Game Studios
Genre: Action Horror
Writers are a very special brand of people. They dream up amazing worlds and characters making their way through gripping situations that resonate with their readers and leave a bit of their own creative blood on the page. The written word has shaped many people in the way they think and what they enjoy thematically among other influences.
Alan Wake is a game that sparked my interest from the get-go. The advertisements touted the main character as a troubled author. Doubled with my love of horror- both in video games and in literature- and I kept an eye on this until it came out. Like most games at the time, however, I had waited until it dropped in price a bit before actually diving in and purchasing.
Growing up reading the likes of Stephen King, John Saul, and Agatha Christie among a number of others, mystery and horror have permeated my media tastes for as long as I can remember. Despite having played through Alan Wake in the past, I found myself drawn to playing it again with a more critical eye. Much like re-reading one of your favorite novels from the past, having a host of life experiences between playthroughs can alter your perceptions and opinions of a game. With nearly ten years having passed since Alan Wake’s release, I was definitely intrigued about whether my views on it would change with another round in the author’s shoes.
Alan narrates the events of the game as he progresses as if the player is reading a book
Welcome to Bright Falls, Washington. It’s an idyllic little town with a tight-knit and friendly community. There’s always a smile waiting for you at Bright’s Diner and their traditional Deerfest celebration is coming up soon. With just a short ferry trip, you can find yourself strolling through the peaceful streets of Bright Falls yourself, and the Majestic Motel in town always has a room for you to stay as long as you like.
This all seems perfect to renowned author, Alan Wake, who has had a bit of writer’s block since his latest book in his Alex Casey series, “The Sudden Stop”, hit the shelves. With a recent incident involving a paparazzi confrontation and his constant strain in his marriage to Alice, the love of his life, getting away for a few days seems like a great way to get some breathing space.
Unfortunately, when night closes in on Bright Falls, things seem a bit off. The town seems to have some problems with their electricity and something seems wrong about the landlord of the cabin on Cauldron lake not giving Alan his keys directly. As the sun goes down, though, the darkness begins to take form, resulting in Alice disappearing and sending Alan on into a maddening spiral of events that he couldn’t dream up for his own novels- or could he?
The game follows the basic control scheme that’s expected of action games with the added function of a jump button that will allow Alan to make a small hop that doesn’t scale terribly high but can cover some ground vertically. He can also sprint by holding down one of the shoulder buttons, though his stamina really only allows him to sprint out of immediate danger or for a short distance before he has to catch his breath, slowing back to his walking pace. In short, Alan feels more human to control than many other action heroes which is nice but deviates enough from the norm that it takes some getting used to.
Where the mechanics deviate from the norm is in the combat of Alan Wake. Vaguely echoing games like the horror cult classic, ObsCure, the game takes advantage of Alan needing to use light to rid himself of the beings of darkness pursuing him. In basic confrontations, this means that he can use a flashlight and ‘focus’ its beam on an enemy, stunning it for a moment or slowing it down as its shadowy defense wears down. Once the darkness has been removed, he can shoot them with his revolver, shotgun, or hunting rifle. There are also some stronger weapons that will help in a pinch or while taking out a large group of adversaries like flashbang grenades and flare guns. The option to play defensively is also available, allowing Alan to hold up a flare to keep enemies at bay so the player can get their bearings or cut a quick escape if need be. The combat can become intense pretty quickly in the game so being able to plan out strategies with weaponry and Alan’s dodge mechanic become important early on.
Alan’s bastions of safety come in the form of well-lit areas. While in the wild, this usually comes in the form of lampposts strewn throughout Bright Falls. Some of them are already on, offering an area for Alan to escape to (entering the lamplight makes all of the enemies disappear until he leaves it) and a place for him to heal his wounds (which happens automatically given some time not being injured and more quickly in the light). This sometimes also means that the generator connected to the light needs to be started, initiating a simple button sequence that the player has to succeed at for it to turn on. Not only are these lights checkpoints for the player to restart from should Alan succumb to the darkness, but they can also be to change the tide of battles. In fact, the number of environmental elements that can be utilized between those, floodlights, combustible containers, and other unassuming objects is impressive as you make your way from place to place.
The Good, The Bad, And…
Using everything at Alan’s disposal- including temporary allies- is important to survival
A large part of Alan Wake’s charm comes from the town of Bright Falls itself. Much like Twin Peaks (which it takes plenty of inspiration from) and Deadly Premonition, the game’s environment gives the player the genuine feeling of traversing a small town with deadly secrets. Characters range from the over-excited Wake fan, Rose, to the two retired rock band artists who know a bit more than people give them credit for to the strange woman cradling a lamp in her arms as she walks the town, checking their lights and making sure they are functional. Despite spending a lot of time on the outskirts of Bright Falls once the action unfolds, the town feels like a real- if maybe a bit too perfect- coastal community.
Mechanically, the game also puts an emphasis on survival. This may seem obvious, but where plenty of games give the condition of killing all of your enemies or making it to a particular point while keeping yourself alive, Alan Wake doesn’t make these clear-cut objectives. You may have the objective to make it through a section of town while some enemies harry you. You can choose to decimate them, leaving you with less resources but more room to continue on safely or you can choose to find a way out of the situation. Sometimes, this can involve turning on a generator before the next wave comes at you, engulfing yourself in light to make the shadows disappear. Sometimes, this means evading or taking a different path to reach your goal before they can overcome you. There’s a sense of freedom and accomplishment in both fleeing and standing your ground and often, you get to make the choice yourself as to how you want to proceed.
Like many third-person action games that include maneuvering through tight quarters like sewers and houses, Alan Wake does fall prey to a camera that either can’t compensate correctly or goes haywire every so often. On occasion, this also happens while trying to center the camera where the player wants it to go even in wide open spaces, sending the viewpoint in a dizzying spin before settling. Given the environments of the game and the necessity of quick reactions to avoid enemies rapidly bludgeoning Alan to death, this can get frustrating.
Another quick point of frustration rears its head in that Alan as a character is a bit slippery to navigate with. There were more than a few instances that the character model wanted to take a few more steps to reach its ‘neutral stance’. What this usually means for the player, however, is that he may overstep his objective, running just past ladders or just a smidge over a ledge (and consequently to his death). This turns into a game of compensation once the player is aware of it but much like some of the wonky camera angles, this can be something that becomes more of an exercise than a feature.
The flashlight unveils secret messages; some even lead to hidden caches of weapons and items
Starting with the music and sound of Alan Wake feels like a necessity. It’s not that it’s particularly groundbreaking; it’s solid but you’ll hear a lot of music and sound effects that ‘do their job’ and not much else. The voice acting is passable, if not stellar, and the environment soundscape is competent. The game makes use of some solid licensed songs between episodes, as well, which actually worked against it for a bit when the licensing ran out. This made Alan Wake unavailable for sale on digital platforms for a bit until Microsoft reapplied for the music to be used in their product, most likely due to public outcry. Are the songs so good that they couldn’t be replaced with some other music or transitional sounds? As an advocate for the preservation of a game’s original state, I’m a fan of hearing Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” or David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” rather than some cobbled together tune, so I guess it comes down to personal opinion.
Visually, the game certainly shows a bit of age. The game is pleasant to look at, but it shines in two areas that don’t appear in function nearly enough. First, the sprawling landscapes of the town of Bright Falls, whether they are aerial views of the town proper or the mountainous regions surrounding it, look amazing. You may see one too many shots of a tilted camera angle sweeping across them, but the environments look amazing in the game. The second (and most easily overlooked) section are the sequences that were actually filmed with real actors. While they offer a stark contrast to the computer-generated areas you travel through, seeing a full video of a Night Springs episode images of other goings on that may or may not be in Alan’s head is an interesting piece in the visual layout of the game. While the overall presentation isn’t astounding to look at in most cases, there is plenty for the eyes to feast on if a player takes the time to look around and take it in.
So far as the genre is concerned, Alan Wake falls just above the middle of the road. If you take it at face value, it feels like any other budgeted action game from the era and rightfully so given how popular the well was to draw from at the time. The game finds more scares in the tension of its combat than its atmosphere and if it weren’t for the nature of the story, calling it “horror” would even be a stretch. The number of times the combat left me breathless far outweighs the number of times the game actually scared me.
As the plot unfolds, though, and Alan interacts with the world around him, the game takes moments to shine- no pun intended- and show moments of heart and design prowess in its characters and environments. You don’t get to spend much time roaming around the town of Bright Falls without the ever-looming threat of the town’s dangers crashing toward you, but the plot and nature of the town call to mind the media that inspired the game in the first place like Twin Peaks and a number of Stephen King novels. If you can get past a few of the technical pitfalls that Alan Wake stumbles over every so often, though, the game is a worthwhile investment.